On Saturday morning 31st January 1953 I was working, with others, on the low lying marshes at Gedgrave. A gale had been blowing for two days and the water had lapped over the top of the river bank at high tide.
That night came the worst disaster the country had known in peace time, it has gone down in history as the night of the East Coast Floods. A terrific gale held up the water in the North Sea, this, combined with a spring tide caused massive flooding from Lincolnshire to Kent. 307 people lost their lives, as did thousands of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. 32,000 people were evacuated from their homes and 1,000 miles of coastline were flooded. Orford did not have any casualties, but many homes were flooded.
At Gedgrave the river banks gave way under the weight of wind and water, breaches hundreds of yards long appeared. The water swept over the low lying land, flooding some houses at Gedgrave before reaching Quay Street where it entered houses causing flooding to a depth of over two feet. In the Jolly Sailor public house in Quay Street is a brass strip 2 feet 6 inches above the floor demonstrating the height of the flood water.
An American family living in Quay Street were marooned in their bungalow. Ralph Brinkley waded through the flood water taking each of the three children, one at a time, from their parents and handed them to helpers on the road. They slept happily on while this operation took place. Their father then carried his wife to safety.
Meanwhile, knowing there were two Air Ministry security policemen on the Island, Reg Partridge and Vic Brinkley mounted a rescue operation. Together with others they went down river in Reg’s motor boat and then up Stony Ditch. It was a hazardous journey in gale force wind with large pieces of debris floating everywhere. They eventually located the policemen, Harry Brown and Bill Riches on the roofs of two separate buildings. Reg took one rowing boat and Vic took the other and succeeded in bringing both policemen to the motor boat. They then retraced the hazardous journey back to the quay. For their heroic action Reg was awarded the BEM and Vic was awarded the Queens Commendation for Bravery..
The local fire brigade, of which I was a member, were called out at daybreak and our first job was to rescue a disabled man and his daughter by getting them out of a bedroom window. We then spent the rest of the day pumping the salt water from the homes in Quay street and going to Butley to pump out the grain pits at Butley Mill.
Hundreds of acres of low lying land from Iken to the Town Marsh (now the car park) in Quay street and from Gedgrave to Quay street were under water. Cattle at Gedgrave which had been grazing in the flooded area had been swept away, some were drowned but several were marooned on the river bank and were rescued by landing craft. Hundreds of sheep which had been grazing on the Island were drowned.
The task of plugging breaches in the river banks and getting rid of the flood water looked tremendous when we started work on the Monday morning. The first priority was to plug the breaches, appeals had gone out for sandbags and for help to fill them with mud from the saltings. The result of the appeal was amazing, volunteers were sent from far and wide, some from a brewery as far away as Norwich and the Army sent in troops, collapsible boats and outboard engines. A crude shelter made of straw bales was erected and the women who worked on the farm made tea continually throughout the very cold days.
Work started on removing the water from the vast area affected. Six of us led by our employer, Sir Peter Greenwell, worked throughout one night digging a trench and laying pipes through the river bank to make a sluice which at low tide allowed the water to flow, full bore, into the river and the sluice gate would close to prevent the water flowing the other way when the tide came in. Massive pumps were moved in and worked day and night pumping the flood water into the river.
At weekends a gang of us went to Havergate Island bird reserve and repaired the breaches in the river walls with sandbags filled with mud. After smoothing mud over the sandbags of one breach a member of the gang wrote in large letters "Welcome back Avocets 1953".
A Royal Air Force working party moved in to repair a huge breach in the river bank on the island side of the river. They filled sandbags with a mixture of dry sand and cement using a cement mixer on the quay. The filled sandbags were then taken across the river and thrown into the water at the breach, the sand and cement then set under water. It took many sandbags before they were above the water line. The RAF working party were billeted in the Town Hall during this operation.
All these activities took place during very cold and often wet conditions and went on for several weeks. When the flood water had been cleared the massive task of ridding the land of the salt which had been deposited began. It took years to get the land back to normal and hundreds of tons of gypsum was used to counteract the effects of the salt.
A firm of contractors (Nuttals) moved in with drag-lines and bulldozers and by making a wide ditch some distance from the river bank, they used the spoil from this ditch to, not only repair the breaches, but to raise the level of all the river banks by six feet in an effort to prevent a recurrence of the flooding.
It must be said that over the years the river walls have settled quite a lot, the concrete war time block house to the south of the quay was completely covered when the river walls were remade after the floods. It is now quite visible again and it is possible the river wall is back to its pre 1953 level.